CRANFORD – The decision of whether the Union County College proposed athletic field ends up at Oak Ridge Park in Clark is far from being written in stone at this point.
At the June 24 Union County College Board of Trustees meeting, the board did pave the way for President Margaret McMenamin to begin negotiating with the county regarding the use of land at Oak Ridge Park in Clark for a proposed athletic field.
However, both the county and college must negotiate in order for this type of venture to move forward.
It is clear after talking to county and college officials late last week, this was the first step of many to come before anything can be built.
Union County Communications Director Sebastian D’Elia explained the county’s position at this point and how they perceived what took place at the June 24 board of trustee meeting.
“We made an offer to provide some land for the field and the college has accepted our offer. We now are entering into a period of serious negotiations but in order to get from A to Z you have to go through a process,” said D’Elia, pointing out this process also has to include that the proposed athletic field fits into the county master plan for Oak Ridge Park.
In 2012 the county began leaning toward the possibility of erecting an ice skating rink at Oak Ridge Park. They approved $800,000 for a consultant to look into this venture that is expected to cost between $15 and 20 million. So far, though, the county has not approved a date to move forward with construction on this project.
“If we can work things out with the college, it could happen, but we have not even scheduled negotiations yet,” said the communications director.
D’Elia said he did not know when McMenamin would be sitting down with county officials to negotiate, confirming that nothing had been scheduled as of yet.
Stephen Nacco, Union County College executive assistant to McMenamin and vice president of administrative services, confirmed June 26 in a statement to LocalSource that the college president “will work with the county to build the field in Clark.”
Nacco’s statement explained that at the Union County Board of Trustees meeting on June 24, the trustees’ Buildings and Grounds Committee reviewed the plan for having the field on the Cranford campus or in Oak Ridge Park and advised the full board that the committee’s consensus was for McMenamin to accept the freeholder’s offer “for the acutely needed soccer and lacrosse field and track.”
At the June 24 meeting, approximately 300 people made it quite clear they strongly objected to an athletic field being constructed on the Cranford campus, specifically because it was adjacent to a quiet, upscale residential area.
This sentiment became even more evident when the building and grounds committee recommended Oak Ridge Park as the more suitable location for a new athletic field.
At this point, prior to the full board of trustees voting on the committee’s recommendation, an already rowdy audience erupted into spontaneous thundering applause, giving the buildings and grounds committee a standing ovation for their decision.
Since the two-year state college came out with plans to build the field in the back section of the Cranford campus, residents living in the area immediately banned together to fight the move. Shortly thereafter they formed the ground roots organization, Union County Neighbors United, garnering support not only from those living adjacent to the college, but also from elected officials in Cranford and Westfield.
At the core was not only concern over the increased noise, traffic and lighting that would occur but, more importantly, the flooding impact from the addition of impervious surface to an area that continues to experience major flooding woes.
This opposition became even more evident during the public comment session when a stream of people headed to the microphone to explain how building such a facility could impact the area.
The majority of those speaking, though, appeared to temper their comments because of the recommendation to site the field at Oak Ridge Park.
However, one speaker, who said he worked with many sports teams in the area, managed to turn the heat back up.
“I know I’m swimming against the tide here but we are always fighting for fields. We do use Oak Ridge for some of our cross country teams but it’s far less convenient for parents,” he said as audience members shouted out for him to “sit down, we don’t care what you think” and “try going through a flood and see how you feel.”
After both former mayor Tom Hannen and current Mayor Andy Kalnins made their plea for the board of trustees to go along with the sub committee’s recommendation to put the field in Clark, Cranford Township Engineer Carl O’Brian told the board the proposed plan for the athletic field on campus had a lot of holes.
“You’re saying this would improve drainage, I haven’t seen that. All water would be directed to Nomahegan lake,” the township engineer said, pointing out that as designed the college would be adding 100 percent impervious surface, which would be “the equivalent of a parking lot.”
“I want a drainage study but I have not received anything from your consultant,” O’Brian added.
Ken Van Olm, an engineer who lives on Colby Lane, a mere 100-feet from the proposed campus location of the athletic field, posed a question to the board.
“Ask yourselves this – would you like something like this in your back yard?” he asked, adding “you go out there on any rainy day and see the water rise.”
Cranford resident Carl Schobella told the board of trustees that he came “this close” to flooding when Tropical Storm Irene hit the township.
“In front of me was an ocean with boats going by and cars floating by. Go look at some footage from that storm and see what people lost,” he said, adding “we want the athletes to have fun, but not at our expense.”
It grew very quiet when Anastos Popov of Herning Avenue gave his heartfelt speech to the board, imploring them to understand what could happen if more flooding occurs.
“If one person dies – my neighbor, my son – how can we take that chance,” he said.
Prior to the board passing the motion to allow the college president to work with the county, several trustees questioned whether Oak Ridge Park was the right location for the athletic field, why the county had not presented “a more concrete proposal,” and why they had not offered financial help.
Board of Trustee Chairman Victor Richel diplomatically countered this, pointing out the college and freeholders have had an excellent history.
“I would say our relationship with the freeholders has been excellent. When they have budget constraints, they still manage to find money for us,” the board chairman said, adding that this year alone the county provided the college with $23 million dollars.
Nevertheless, Richel admitted he too was surprised the county would not be paying for the field.
“I did hear for the first time we are not getting a completely paid for facility,” Richel said, quipping that McMenamin might be able to change that situation.
During the public comment portion of the meeting, Union County Freeholder Bette Jane Kowalski made it clear where the county stood on this particular issue.
“I do want to clarify one thing. There has been talk that we are paying for the construction of an athletic field,” she said, pointing out that the county “offered land and will support development but that’s it.”